“Parke Diem”— Mobilizing Grassroots to Support Your Parks

By Nick Hardigg | Posted on February 13, 2014

In the February issue of Parks & Recreation (“Seizing the Day”), we shared the story of “Parke Diem” — a grassroots campaign for volunteering and raising awareness of park needs. With a small staff and limited funds, we built a citywide coalition of 50 park-supporting groups for two days of stewardship. More than 1,400 volunteers came out for 73 projects.

As the nonprofit foundation for Portland (Oregon)’s parks, we’re often asked how to start a parks foundation or tap into private philanthropy. But sometimes the most pressing value of a parks foundation is not fundraising, but building public awareness and support.

 A volunteer team at one of 73 Parke Diem sites.

In Portland, our reality is that private philanthropy is unlikely to exceed 3 percent of total park funding. Most money raised is for highly visible capital projects or event sponsorships — projects with good branding potential for sponsors. That means fundraising alone isn’t likely to build recreation centers for kids in need, put playgrounds in “play deserts”, protect natural areas, or reverse a frightening maintenance backlog. Significantly addressing a park funding gap takes a prolonged campaign, over years, to build public awareness and support — often with a voice and fervency that doesn’t come naturally to public agencies.

It was a wake-up call a year ago to conduct a public survey and realize how little support there was for a parks ballot measure or levy. Citizens just didn’t realize how many kids couldn’t walk to a park, or that half of our playgrounds were worn out and needed removal in ten years. City messaging had been lauding our award-winning park system, but not the bad news on equity and maintenance. That’s no surprise — no agency wants to be the lightning rod for underserved communities. That’s where a nonprofit park foundation — and array of partners — can play a critical role: being a respectfully candid citizens’ voice for need, and finding creative ways to spread the word.

We began our messaging campaign through public events: distributing brochures and promoting free raffles to park visitors at summer events. As our City became increasingly comfortable with our new role, we approached them about partnering on a citywide volunteer campaign. We planned over 70 projects organized by both the City as well as our park friends groups.

Our foundation focused on promotion — recruiting park groups to sign on and providing an online platform for volunteer signups. We tried to keep it fun: work “parties” with snacks and free t-shirts listing every park friends group and sponsor. Along with fun came the message: our parks legacy is in danger. After all, two years of stagnant budgets and typical inflation can completely overshadow our entire philanthropy program. Public awareness and coordinated advocacy are essential.

Join us! We’ve posted examples to help with planning your own “Parke Diem.” The name is free to use, too.

Have a “Parke Diem” example you’d like to share? Other ideas and information we could provide to help? Just let us know. “Parke Diem” everyone!

Nick Hardigg is the Executive Director for the Portland Parks Foundation.